Thanks to the work of 19-year old Egyptian physics student Aisha Mustafa, we might have high-efficiency, fuelless rocket propulsion. We’re not talking about the raw power of a chemical rocket here, but something more akin to the thrust derived from an ion engine. But unlike even an ion engine, this new device doesn’t need to carry any fuel at all.
The device is incredibly technical, and hard to understand (as most of quantum mechanics is, unfortunately) but here’s the basics: the vacuum of space isn’t actually a vacuum. Instead, space is filled with a soup of particles and antiparticles that annihilate themselves.
These tiny pieces of energetic matter only exist for mere moments, and are nearly massless. But we can still interact with them. The new engine is based around the casimir effect. Two highly reflective plates are held close together, and by shaping them in a certain way and moving them just right, a tiny amount of force is derived. A force gotten without having to have any fuel onboard and using almost no energy.
Now, the amount of force being delivered is tiny, but that doesn’t mean it is insignificant. The Pioneer spacecrafts, two vehicles that have travelled further away from us than any other, routinely deviate from their expected trajectory by a few hundred meters each year. The reason? One side of the craft radiates a little more heat than the other.
If this technology gets developed, we could see a fleet of lightweight microsatellites that do everything our current generation do. These engines could reduce satellite mass below what even ion engines can do, thanks to it not having to carry any fuel at all. And the prospect of being able to create a craft that accelerates with no fuel consumed could make interplanetary travel finally possible.